A master’s in machine learning can lead to a lucrative career in research or data science. Still, degree programs can only teach you a fraction of what you’ll need to know to excel in this evolving discipline. That’s why there’s still a lot of debate around whether investing the time and money it takes to earn a machine learning master’s is truly worth it.
Can you work in data science or become a machine learning engineer without a graduate degree? Yes. Should you? Some argue no, including computer vision research engineer Ignacio Hernández Montilla, who had this to say in an article about the value of machine learning master’s degrees:
“A master’s degree teaches you the theory behind all the hype… There are currently a lot of ‘machine learning engineers’ and ‘data scientists’ that have only taken one or two online courses. These online courses only introduce you to the attractive part of machine learning. A master’s, on the other hand, presents the opportunity of teaching you the knowledge a data scientist or machine learning engineer requires, in addition to crucial mathematical thinking.”
Montilla’s point is that while it’s relatively easy to get up to speed on the most recent developments in machine learning tech, students in machine learning master’s programs learn durable skills. These can enhance a career in this discipline regardless of how machine learning technology changes in the future.
Earning an advanced degree in machine learning will never be easy. Still, it’s possible to pursue a master’s more easily thanks to a growing number of online machine learning master’s programs. In this article about earning a master’s in machine learning online, we cover:
Master’s in machine learning programs teach students how to create computer systems that can learn without additional programming. It sounds like sci-fi to some, but applications people use every day are already built around machine learning technologies.
Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home, as well as virtual personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, get better at what they do over time by learning from users’ past queries and commands. Some online customer support chatbots are virtually indistinguishable from live humans, thanks to refinements driven by machine learning. And machine learning is the reason apps like Netflix and Spotify are so good at making personalized recommendations.
Students in machine learning-focused graduate programs take classes in:
They tend to have robust analytical, math, and problem-solving skills, along with solid programming chops. Most master’s in machine learning programs (online or otherwise) expect students to have already completed courses in probability and statistics and data analytics. They look also for applicants who already have well-developed programming skills, including experience with Java and Python and tools like Matlab, R, SciPy, and NumPy. Programs jump right into the advanced statistical models and algorithms that make machine learning possible, so students have to be ready for a more in-depth learning experience. Expectations in these programs are high.
The tech industry is known for welcoming those with significant hands-on experience. Plus, the demand for AI professionals is rapidly increasing. Many AI job postings you’ll spot today will only require an undergrad degree and a list of specific required skills. However, when you browse highly sought-after positions at well-known firms, the jobs often require a graduate degree (PhD or computer science master’s). If you’re looking for high-paying positions in the field, a master’s is crucial. (
The earning potential for these roles typically soars past the six-figure mark. The median salary of an AI engineer, for example, is $164,800. A University of San Diego salary chart lists other six-figure AI-related positions, including data scientists (who earn $127,000), research scientists ($111,000), and big data engineers ($131,000). ( )
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A search for Master of Science (MS) in Machine Learning programs will net you very few results. Why? At most colleges and universities, machine learning is offered as a Master of Science in Computer Science or Master of Science in Engineering specialization. There are currently no dedicated master’s in machine learning programs available online. Still, machine learning is an important part of artificial intelligence, computer engineering, and Big Data—which means you can launch a career in machine learning with any of the following degrees:
Earning a master’s in machine learning online usually involves going through the same admissions process, meeting the same bachelor’s degree and other prerequisite requirements, working with the same faculty members and advisors, and taking the same classes as students in in-person programs. The curriculum, if not precisely the same, is usually nearly identical. It typically includes core courses and electives like:
Most programs also include a hands-on component, which might take the form of an internship, capstone course, a stint in your school’s machine learning research lab, or even an independent research project that leads to a publishing credit.
Some of the best full-time and part-time online master’s in machine learning programs can be found at:
What these schools have in common is that they also have highly-ranked on-campus machine learning master’s programs. Regardless of which degree format students choose, they get multiple opportunities to participate in machine learning research and to network with leaders from top companies while in school. They also receive robust career support after graduation.
Earning a master’s in machine learning online can take anywhere from one to three years or more, depending on which program you choose. Full-time, two-year programs are the most common, but there are also accelerated full-time programs that last 15 to 18 months and part-time online master’s degree programs that can take up to five years to complete.
Every school approaches this program differently, so be sure you understand the commitment you’re making before you enroll in any machine learning master’s program. The part-time, 45-credit machine learning MSCS program at Stanford University, for instance, takes three years minimum to complete, while students at UC Berkeley who can commit to three courses per semester can graduate in just 12 months.
Unfortunately, online master’s degree programs typically cost about as much as on-campus programs—and sometimes a smidge more because of technology fees. Earning a master’s in machine learning online from one of the best universities for computer science or engineering can cost quite a bit. An MSCS in Machine Learning from Columbia University will set you back about $67,000, while a MEM in Data & Machine Learning from Duke University comes with a $59,000 price tag.
There is, however, one exception, and that’s Georgia Tech. In 2013, the school decided to price its online MSCS program much lower than its on-campus programs, which can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000, depending on how quickly a student completes the required coursework. Students who take two classes per semester over five semesters pay just $6,600, while students who take one course per semester pay $8,500 for this degree. That’s pretty amazing, considering that Georgia Tech is one of the top computer science schools in the United States.
Job titles related to machine learning include:
Machine learning is used in fields as diverse as finance and photography to streamline processes, reduce waste, and increase profits… and to make things more beautiful, create art, and even render one-of-a-kind human faces. There are now jobs for machine learning specialists in many different industries—not just tech—because more and more companies are buying into the value of applied artificial intelligence.
These jobs pay well. Entry-level positions in machine learning can pay above $75,000; having a master’s degree in artificial intelligence correlates with an average salary of about $101,000. The average machine learning engineer earns $114,000, but you could earn a lot more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, machine learning jobs pay about $123,000 on average, and the highest-paid in the field earn close to $200,000 annually.
Much of what you’ll learn in an online machine learning master’s program can be learned for free on sites like Coursera. Many people will tell you that it makes more sense to spend the two years you’d spend in a graduate program working on projects and creating a portfolio.
There are also plenty of people who believe that if you decide to pursue a machine learning master’s, you’re wasting your time and money if you choose an online program. Most online degree programs confer the same diplomas as on-campus programs, however, which means potential employers don’t have to know you earned your master’s in machine learning online. Then again, an online master’s degree in machine learning can command just as much respect as one earned from a brick and mortar school—provided you choose a school with high admissions standards, higher expectations, and positive student outcomes.
Don’t be tempted by lower-quality programs cropping up at no-name colleges, or boot camps and courses that claim they can turn anyone into a machine learning expert in just six weeks. They can’t, which is something computer vision engineer Richmond Alake learned the hard way. He wrote an article about how his overconfidence led to challenges when he decided to transition into machine learning. This passage stands out: “Machine learning is no joke. Individuals have dedicated their lives to developing topics and corners within machine learning, so believe me when I tell you that you can’t master or learn machine learning in three months. At best, you could be aware of some of the common concepts that are easily digestible within a small time frame.”
If studying online will let you attend a better school with a more prestigious program, go for it. Your master’s degree will open doors, and more importantly, give you a depth of knowledge that you won’t be able to get anywhere else.
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